The Crooked Mirror, A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation, Louise Steinman, Beacon Press, 2013, 240 pp
In graceful and heartfelt prose, Louise Steinman captures a horrific topic: the results and residue of the Holocaust in Poland. Thanks to my reader friend with whom I formed the World's Smallest Reading Group (just the two of us), I learned about and read The Crooked Mirror.
Louise Steinman, daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, had lived all her life without learning a thing about her family's past. Her mother could not even say the word Poland and Louise was only told that the country allowed almost all of Poland's Jews to be exterminated and possibly was even complicit in the genocide.
I immediately sympathized with her dilemma. One of the reasons I decided to write my own autobiography was because my parents rarely talked about their ancestors, nor as it turned out did they know much about them. All my ancestors were German immigrants who came to the United States in the mid to late 1800s. Two world wars with Germany as America's enemy had effectively silenced my grandparents about their origins. In their efforts to assimilate and blend in, neither their native language nor tales of the families' pasts survived.
By the time Louise Steinman began her quest and odyssey into the past, she was a practicing American Jew in Los Angeles whose rabbi was also a Zen Buddhist. Only in LA, right? The purpose of her first trip to Poland, by invitation of the rabbi, was to attend an International Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This experience led her to Radomsko, her grandparent's Polish hometown, and ultimately to a more complete understanding of the complexity of Polish-Jewish relations.
Having read John Hersey's The Wall and Leon Uris's Mila 18 (both are fictional accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto), as well as The Patagonian Hare, the memoir of Claude Lanzmann (creator of the Holocaust movie Shoa which I watched), I was fairly well prepared historically to appreciate the emotional prejudices Steinman had to confront. None of this reading prepared me at all for the reading group discussion of The Crooked Mirror.
My friend brought another friend to the meeting. Both of them are Jews of Polish descent. My friend has been to Poland twice and her friend at least four times, including visits to the hometowns of their forebears. The book meant more to them than I could have imagined.
My ancestors were Lutheran and emigrated for economic reasons. These women's ancestors were obliterated almost without a trace. Our discussion ranged far and wide leaving me with many of my preconceived notions rearranged.
To all of these women goes my admiration for their courage in facing the past and their willingness to help heal a countrywide breach caused by the evils of both the Nazis and post WWII Communism. Though the history of the persecution towards the Jewish people dates much further back than 1939, there was a time when Jews and Catholics in Poland lived shoulder to shoulder in tolerance and cooperation.
Steinman's memoir follows her progression from tentative inquiry through increased involvement and finally to enough healing to allow hope. To this day hardly any Jews live in the entire country of Poland, but efforts by both Jews and present day Polish Catholics have brought to light what really happened. In older times "a Polish Catholic painted the zodiac on the ceiling of Radomsko's Great Synagogue and a Polish Jewish tinsmith designed the spires of the town's cathedral."
(The Crooked Mirror is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)